The Diversity of Today’s Cutting Edge Sci-Fi
When we talk about science fiction we divide it up. It’s too big for a single shelf, we have to break it into subgenres and swallow it in pieces. There’s hard sci-fi, which typically deals with complicated scientific concepts. I usually call this technical sci-fi, since it’s often predicated on the idea that the science it describes is actually possible; it derives from existing inventions and innovations. There is also science fantasy, which blends fantastical worlds with technology in wonderful ways. There are utopias, dystopias, post-apocalyptic wastelands, future history, interstellar wars, intergalactic space operas, and speculative “what-if” near-future scenarios. There’s time travel and terraforming and alien invasion, and at any time you may encounter two or three or five of these things all in the same book.
That’s the true beauty of science fiction: its only limitation is human imagination. It’s a genre without walls. It is impossible to define, because the definition expands every time a new author or screenwriter picks up a pen. It never loses its appeal because it changes with the times. When twenty-one-year-old Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, widely considered the first science fiction novel, she broke new ground with a genre that would continue the tradition of social commentary, keen political observation, and celebration of human ingenuity.
In light of its endless mutability, what does a phrase like “the cutting edge of sci-fi” even mean? Once upon a time it was Isaac Asimov exploring the three laws of robotics, or inventing future history. It was Larry Niven and David Brin envisioning alien worlds and races so different from our own as to be almost ludicrous. It was Frank Herbert telling us that fear is the mind-killer on a desert world like and impossibly unlike Earth. It was Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock boldly going into a universe where exploration was embraced and diplomacy, rather than war, was prized. Sci-fi has always been self-aware, so Douglas Adams poking fun at superluminal travel and also the baffling popularity of Cricket fit right in.
I love the classics, and it is impossible to read sci-fi without discovering references to Heinlein, Clarke, Gibson, Pohl, Anderson, Wells, and Bradbury, but they are all a bit dated by now. Science has moved forward, social norms have moved forward, the political landscape is different, and several generations of authors have had their chance to play in space. Instead of reading off a list of old white men when we talk about the great names of science fiction, we can broaden our scope to include the rest of the human race.
I’ve put together a list of some recent titles and authors whose work has broken new ground, found new wormholes to fly through, and pushed at the event horizon of science fiction’s known universe. I hope it will help those discovering the genre as well as those who already know and love it find books in new directions. And so, without further ado, we begin by acknowledging some of the greats of the fairly recent past.
Octavia E. Butler, who with all of her work has explored the concept of human otherness, whether it be through the medium of aliens, human adaptation, or complex exploration of race. She’s won multiple awards with her writing from 1980 to 2012, and her books and short stories remain important and relevant in the present day. She is best known for Kindred and her Earthseed duology.
Madeleine L’Engle, who wrote enduring children’s classics that are still well-read and loved today. The world would be a poorer place without A Wrinkle in Time.
Ursula K. Le Guin, who wrote non-white protagonists before it was cool, and changed the face of both Fantasy and sci-fi forever with her thoughtful explorations of humanity, society, and what it means to be literary. The Left Hand of Darkness is a landmark of intellectual sci-fi.
More recently a few of the names making waves in science fiction are:
Ann Leckie with Ancillary Justice and its sequels, which are a brilliant look at consciousness, gender, and what it means to be human, all framed as a political space drama where the main character used to be a ship.
Nnedi Okorafor, who brings Africa into the world of sci-fi. In Lagoon First Contact is made not in North America or Tokyo, but off the coast of Lagos, Nigeria. The narration combines Nigerian folk tales with the traditional First Contact framework, using local dialects to beautiful effect. Okorafor continues subverting stereotypes with the triumphant Binti, a novella about a young Himba girl who is the first of her people to go to Oomza University, the best in the Galaxy. Unfortunately there’s the little problem of an alien war in the way…
Cixin Liu is one of China’s most beloved sci-fi writers, recently translated and published in English. The Three-Body Problem combines physics, alien invasion, and a thoroughly non-Western view of the world for a refreshing look at how humanity might react to an impending colonization effort by extraterrestrials.
Kameron Hurley, whose Bel Dame Apocrypha series is a masterpiece of science fantasy worldbuilding. The classic Arthur C. Clarke quote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” has never been more apt. Hurley’s books deal with religion, gender bias, bugs, and upending expectations. They’re also dark as dark can be, with the grimy feel of urban fantasy or a particularly bloody noir.
C. A. Higgins debuted with Lightless, which starts out as one thing and ends up being something else entirely. It’s a beautiful look at the trials of motherhood and personal relationships in the black of space. It’s told from the perspective of a female mechanic who understands her ship like no one else and must protect it when everything begin to fall apart.
Andy Weir, who wrote The Martian, a funny and brilliant standalone look at a possible near future where human expeditions go to Mars semi-regularly. His story is essentially an adventure survival story, written with humor, thoughtfulness, and impressive attention to scientific detail. It’s a story of the strength of humanity and our capacity for endless innovation.
Emily St. John Mandel, whose Station Eleven electrified the world of post-apocalyptic sci-fi. In its sprawling narrative a Shakespearean theatre troupe performs for scattered survivors on the principle that survival is insufficient. It examines the beauty of the ordinary in extraordinary circumstances and reminds us to appreciate the little, normal things in life.
Honorable Mention: John Scalzi, N. K. Jemisin, Paolo Bacigalupi, Wesley Chu, China Miéville, Catherynne Valente, Aliette de Bodard, Margaret Atwood, Mira Grant, and many, many more.
When I started thinking about this list I ran into trouble almost immediately. There are so many phenomenal writers out there, far too many to list in a single article! I haven’t even started on the wealth of television and movies exploring strange new worlds, and although some of these authors have published collections of short stories, I deliberately did not include short story writers. Whether you like aliens, spaceships, worldbuilding, or AI, the world of contemporary sci-fi has something for you. Strap on your jetpack and goggles and you’re on your way!